Long walk to freedom...

On second thought

Long walk to freedom...

Every year, on August 15, we celebrate our freedom. But, what does it mean to be free, and maybe more importantly, has our freedom grown or lessened over time? People will tell you that things are the best they have ever been, others, equally emphatically, will claim our freedom has been completely hollowed out and nothing of it remains. There must be some objective way to judge these claims, otherwise we are just as good or bad as those old-timers muttering, “What good did it all do? We would be better off still being ruled by the British.”

Instinctively, at our gut level, we know that the fight for freedom was worth it. We know liberty is a real good — but too often we struggle to define it. That definition matters, because you have to honestly identify what you are fighting for.

So, how do we define freedom? Let us begin with first things first: the freedom to be alive, to be free from the threat of death and violence. This might sound obvious, but the freedom to live is so basic that we often overlook it. It is only at times of crisis that we are strongly reminded of it. For us, unfortunately, one of those times of crisis was the recent multiple bomb attacks in Mumbai. What those attacks reveal is a very cruel truth about the world we currently live in. There is something called evil; there are groups,
organisations, states, individuals, who can calmly plan and carry through the mass murder of ordinary citizens. Unless some defences are put in place, we are at their mercy.

An ordinary person, you or I, is not capable of defending himself from such forces. The primary reason, then, of having a state is to keep us safe from the violence of others, and a state performs this through a variety of ways: through the military, through policing, through diplomacy. And here is the first contradiction, because to defend the freedom to live we are asked to give up some of our liberties to the state, which decides how to deploy the military which polices us, which, through diplomacy, decides our obligations to the larger world. To protect the first, the greatest, freedom we end up
surrendering other liberties. In the complex world of today it is unavoidable, but it is not an unalloyed good.

All of us know that a state can take away liberties, and its functionaries can use their powers for their own good, and not for the good of us all. A policeman can abuse his power by arbitrarily arresting somebody, a soldier can shoot a civilian when there is no danger, an administrator can steal land away from one person and assign it to another.
It is for this reason that a strong state is not enough unless you also have the rule of law. We may need institutions to provide us with security, but we need to make sure that they function in an impartial, just and lawful manner. Those that fail their responsibilities, that abuse their power, have to be held to account. And there is always a judiciary that can be invoked when the institutions of the state, or its functionaries, fail. That is the only way to make sure that the state, which we have created to allow us some freedom from violence and the fear of violence, does not become a predator of our freedoms.

But how do we know that the rule of law is being followed? Those in positions of power can subvert the very institutions that are supposed to give us justice. Sometimes state institutions fail, and those that have stolen both money and freedoms, are allowed by the state to prosper. Therefore we need one additional asset, that of accountability. A state must be accountable to its citizens, after all it runs on the money that it gathers from the taxes we pay. That little term, “Tax Deducted at Source”, on our paycheques, or “Value Added Tax” on our bill, tells you that you, as a citizen, are paying for the upkeep for the institutions of the state. Therefore the state must be accountable to you.

Throughout our post-Independence history, part of this accountability has come through an indirect source: that of the media. In a free country, a free press works to inform the public on what the state is doing, how our money is being spent by the government we have empowered. When the Emergency was imposed by Indira Gandhi, it was the press that she muzzled first, and it was the press that brought her down, with the Indian Express famously running blank pages in its editorial section to protest against censorship.

Over time, institutions of accountability have become better. The Right to Information Act is probably the greatest revolution in accountability we have seen, and it is partly thanks to that many of the new scams have been unearthed. But, at times, even the
media fails. The greatest lesson we take away from the Radia tapes is that the top journalists in the country functioned, not as people opening the system to accountability, but to close it, permitting the stealing of Indian wealth, the theft of our freedom.

This is where the last, but most important part of liberty, lies: with the citizen. The press did not initially cover the scandal, it was only through public opinion that the big media houses changed course, implicating the powerful people involved. A free country maintains its freedom because its citizens are sensitive about it, and are willing to fight for it. More than a dozen activists have been killed for pursuing the Right to Information case; journalists have risked their careers to take on the biggest names in their institutions. They are able to do this because our society values their efforts and celebrates the open society that their efforts help create; because we regard them as heroes.

And yet, for most people in this country, the hundreds of millions that are living in poverty, what does freedom mean? Amartya Sen, in his groundbreaking work, “Development As Freedom”, dealt with this problem, and his understanding won him a
Nobel, and gave us a new understanding of the world. Sen argued that developing countries could measure their progress not simply by GDP or per capita growth, but by how much freedom had increased for average people in the country. Can a person have a choice of jobs? Can they travel freely? Is the population more literate (freer from ignorance), and healthier (freer from disease)? Are more people able to do what they want, rather than what they must?

These are real freedoms, ones that you and I can see and feel and hear. And we have data to measure it, examples to cite. Literacy and life expectancy have risen across the board, as has connectivity by rail and road. The proliferation of low-cost airlines has made high speed travel accessible even to the middle class. The last 20 years of economic growth has also opened up a slew of opportunities for young Indians. Although the IT industry and call centres have dominated the news, there are other aspects of growth. Currently, Haryana, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat have manufacturing sectors comparable to those of China’s coastal regions, among the most productive in the world. A more robust economy has allowed people to experiment with careers other than the ordinary — immortalised in the feel-good Aamir Khan film, 3 Idiots.

But the data presents us with bad news as well. The economic mismanagement of Bihar before and during Laloo Prasad Yadav’s tenure destroyed opportunities for Biharis, forcing them to travel to cities such as Mumbai and Delhi at great cost to themselves,
attracting both scorn and violence. Economic stagnation in West Bengal meant another exodus of talented, educated individuals out of the state. In Uttar Pradesh, political and economic mismanagement has bred rampant criminality. Of the 395 MLAs elected in UP in 2007, 138 had criminal charges against them. Violence, by both militants and our own military and paramilitary, takes away precious lives and opportunities in Kashmir, the North East, and in the Maoist areas.

Our record as a free country remains a mixed one. Certainly in terms of economic freedom our opportunities seem to have increased, enlarging the measure of freedom. With increased economic well-being have come greater cultural creativity, and a more entrepreneurial spirit — both good things. At the same time, it has not necessarily made us more open-minded, nor managed to protect the marginalised. Maqbool Fida
Hussain, the most famous painter in India, was hounded out of the country and died in exile. The fact that the guilty of the 1984 and 2002 pogroms are still walking free means that justice is still not able to hold powerful politicians to account. Our walk to freedom remains a work in progress; we must keep walking.

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